Jaipur Literature Festival: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

“Censorship isn’t just something imposed by the state,” says Ali Sethi. “It’s also a mental state.” Free speech isn’t one of the themes for the JLF this year, but like the various memes floating around the festival—gulags, conspiracy theories, the changing nature of freedom, the state versus the individual—it comes up in interesting ways.
Sethi talks about discovering the stories in women’s digests in Pakistan—stories that seem to parallel the stories in women’s magazines here, in their blend of conservatism and outspokenness. Intrigued, he and his friends track down the women who run one of the more popular digests, with sales of 160,000 copies a month. (There’s a moment while we compute this, given the average sales of the Indian or Pakistani writer in English.) They’re met with suspicion: why are they interested in these narratives?

“What we’re doing is not unIslamic,” they’re told. Reassured that Sethi and his friends aren’t there to accuse them, the women open up about the worlds these stories come from.

Two days later, Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes an unannounced appearance at the festival. Her arrival has been hinted at, but not revealed for security reasons: she has lived under the shadow of death threats, ever since her book Infidel came out. The media goes nuts; not so the general reader, who has now got used to Jaipur’s surprises–as one schoolgirl puts it: “I turned around and bumped into Wole Soyinka! Then I turned the other way and bumped into Alexander McCall Smith!”

Most of us can’t get into the auditorium for her talk; the press of the crowds is too great; so we see her as a remote figure on the giant screens outside the Durbar Hall. She accuses the world’s liberal democracies of appeasing Islam, of being too mired in their own self-doubt and fear of betraying their own traditions to genuinely criticize or examine the more unpleasant aspects of faith and Islam.

The writer I’m standing next to is quiet during her session, but as it ends, he quotes Buruma’s review of Infidel:

“There is no doubt that many Islamic societies, especially in the Middle East, are in deep trouble for many reasons: political, historical, social, economic and religious. Revolutionary Islamism is seen by a growing number of Muslims as the only answer to failed secular dictatorships and corrupt, oil-rich elites, as well as to the economic and military domination of the United States. And European Muslims, often confused and alienated, feel its fatal attraction. Hirsi Ali is quite right that this force must be resisted. Enlightened reform of religious practices that clash with liberal democratic freedoms is necessary. But much though I respect her courage, I’m not convinced that Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s absolutist view of a perfectly enlightened West at war with the demonic world of Islam offers the best perspective from which to get this done.”

I’m reminded of the debate over Islam in Europe that raged at signandsight, drawing in Pascal Bruckner and others, not so long ago. It’s well worth re-reading.





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